|OUR HEROES:||Tira Wolfsdaughter||Hank Woodman||Haiku Odsdottir||Gilead||Persia|
he party approaches Montral carefully. It has been many weeks since last they left this barbarian stronghold, and the Columbia was in a difficult position when they left. Sure enough, advance scouts report that the ship is not to be sighted in her last known mooring. Gilead orders the party to fall back after spotting evidence of an armed encampment on this side of the river.
Unfortunately, the scouts of the Montral are at least as good. They are ambushed. Though Hank and Gilead and a few others are away from the main group, a surrender is hastily declared and all give themselves up to the superior number of the Montral war party. The leader, Chief Karkomak by name, declares that they are subversive outlanders and must leave Kabekki lands immediately. This suits the party fine, since that was already their intention. The war party is probably relieved as well, since a fight would have led to death on both sides. Had the Tallonite expedition been any smaller, they would probably have been executed on the spot. Instead they are marched at spear and arrow point for two days until they reach a line of grisly markers which indicate the extent of the Montral lands.
Here they are ordered to continue down river, where they are told their boat has gone. Should any double back, it would be considered an act of war. All attempts at negotiation and all questions asked about the Columbia are met with barbarian stoicism.
Fortunately, the Columbia is spotted a few days later. She is lying at anchor in the center of the river where it has widened out into a lake. Ahead of her lie numerous channels where the river is broken up by islands. They signal the ship and the paddle wheeler quickly churns over to rendezvous with them. Quartermaster Keno shouts for them to hurry and the launch swiftly makes several short trips to gather them aboard.
Once all are safe, the Columbia quickly returns to the center of the lake, where Master Crockett fills them in on what has transpired in their absence. Apparently, the Montral chieftains bickered over the status of the Columbia. Not all of them were happy about having a ship of Witches so close to their heartland. Arguments were frequent, but quelled with greater and greater reluctance by Chief Lafayette. Most of the chieftains claimed that the Columbia adepts were corrupting their own witches, filling their minds with subversive ideas of their own importance. The flash point occurred when a young Kabekki witch fled to the Columbia and sought asylum, asking to be taken to Tallon for education. The youth's return was demanded. Faced with destruction, Crockett complied, but the damage had been done. They were ordered to leave. The River Master took the ship downstream, looking for a place to anchor while waiting for the return of the Expedition. They have been stuck at this point for more than a week.
The channels ahead are filled with Montral warriors under another hawkish chief by the name of Pandanchee. These warriors have arrows coated with pitch that they can light at a moment's notice. Through horn signals, they can tell the others which narrow channel the Columbia is taking and concentrate flaming arrow fire at that point. Pandanchee does not want the Columbia to survive its retreat. Crockett has been hoping that the Raven golem or Hugin the beast raven would return and be able to give an aerial report. Obviously, the Kabekki cannot efficiently cover the entire river, and if he can determine their weakest point he is willing to make a run for it. Hugin has of course been missing since he was sent to deliver a message to Tronto. The Raven was damaged in the last flight over Niagara, and may not survive another trip, but Hank volunteers. It is either that or abandon the Columbia.
With a premonition of disaster, he takes to the air. Sure enough, although the islands are crawling with barbarian archers, there are several less-guarded passages where he believes they cannot bring men fast enough to reinforce. He flies back and signals the Columbia, which then barrels straight for his suggested course. There is a small fusillade of arrows, but the ship is only slightly damaged. The only casualty is Slick Russpelt, who suffers a frightful wound to his arm. Fortunately Farralon is able to patch him up shortly afterward.
Not so fortunate is the Raven. Hank has felt cables and pulleys groaning and giving under the strain. The ornithopter is already coming apart as he flies down to land. The damaged golem comes up short and its claws strike the gunwale. Pieces of the bird are strewn across the deck and beyond. It is a tangled ruin. Hank crawls from the wreckage and quickly realizes that the Golem will never fly again. He feels certain that Mistress Dakota will understand the need, but does not relish telling her of the demise of her creation.
Nor are their troubles over. They have the Kebekwa yet to pass. Chief Thibaut had let them pass before, when they had many trade goods. Now most of their stock has been depleted by the weeks spent currying the favor of Lafayette. With nothing to offer the High Kabekki tribes, Gilead fears they will be less than successful at negotiation. He discusses this with Crockett and they resolve to continue past the fortress without stopping. Their coming is long foreseen, of course. Scouts along the river have drummed messages back to the citadel and the Kebekwa launch dozens of boats, forming a barricade across the river. Entreaties are shouted from the lead boat, but the language is foreign. Gilead attempts to signal their intention to go through. The boats immediately converge toward the paddle wheeler. The Columbia suffers a few arrow hits and the boats seem to be of little threat. The biggest damage comes from flung grapnels. These are attached by strong line to heavy anchors. The intentions is to stop or slow the Columbia in spite of herself. Fortunately, the worst they do is tear out a section of gunwale when they fail to catch onto anything critical. The Columbia barrels through the boats and narrowly misses catapult fire from both sides of the river.
They are free. The remainder of the Sanlorenz poses no major threats, and in a few days, they have reached the bay and open water.